As we juggle multiple roles in our complex society, a large group of us struggle from the physical effects of chronic stress. Our bodies have a natural response to stress, more commonly known as the “fight or flight” mechanism. Our adrenal cortex on our kidneys releases a steroid hormone called cortisol, to help us fight off physical, emotional, and/or environmental stressors.
Cortisol release is a beneficial and physical response to help us manage stress. It acts as our natural alarm clock and rises close to the time that our body wakes up for the day. However, our bodies response to a stressful incident is designed to end when that event is over. Many of the factors that cause stress in our lives, i.e. work, family, relationships, and finances, are things that we deal with every day.
Cortisol raises our blood sugar, affects our appetite, and worsens those irresistible cravings for junk foods when we’re stressed. People with high cortisol levels have been found to eat more calories per day (1).
In preparation for sleep, your body drops your cortisol at nighttime. If your cortisol levels are too high, you may have a hard time falling asleep (i.e. “tired but wired” feeling). You may also toss and turn all night – only to feel tired the next day.
Magnesium may help balance our body’s production of cortisol (3). But, did you know the average American does not get enough magnesium? Just 1 cup of spinach provides nearly 40% of your daily requirement for magnesium. Sauté some spinach with your eggs in the morning, incorporate a handful into your soup, or throw together a spinach salad and with slivered almonds for an additional magnesium boost.
When combined with magnesium, B6 has been found to reduce premenstrual anxiety symptoms in women (4). Vitamin B6 is required for your body to make the calming neurotransmitter called GABA, as well as serotonin and dopamine, which are largely related to mood regulation.
Chickpeas pack a nutritional punch with nearly 30 percent of your daily value of B6, in addition to 40 percent of your daily magnesium requirements in just a ½ cup serving. To incorporate chickpeas into your diet, try using hummus as a dip for raw vegetables. You can also add a can of chickpeas to your chili mixture, or feature it as your plant-based protein in your meatless Monday meal with this Chickpea Curry from Whitney E. RD.
Vitamin C may help reduce our physical and mental response to stress. It is involved in the production of dopamine, a feel-good hormone associated with motivation and reward. Generally, yellow and orange colored fruits and vegetables contain higher amounts of Vitamin C.
Bell peppers, specifically yellow bell peppers, contain over 500% of your daily requirements for Vitamin C. Slice yellow bell pepper and use to dip into a chickpea hummus for a stress-busting snack. Sautéing a yellow bell pepper for a stir fry is also an excellent way to incorporate this Vitamin C superfood into your meals.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, specifically, two long fatty acids abbreviated DHA and EPA. Omega-3 fats help to reduce inflammation in your body, and may reduce cortisol levels. In fact, some research even summarizes that EPA and DHA may help treat depression in women, finding up to a 35 percent reduction in depressive symptoms (5).
For optimal benefit, we should be eating salmon (fish) at least 1-2 times per week. My favorite salmon recipe is this Grilled Salmon with Avocado Greek Salsa.
Green tea contains beneficial chemicals called polyphenols. These polyphenols may help to inhibit cortisol production (6). Green tea also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that can promote relaxation through increasing dopamine (your feel-good brain chemical).
It is best to steep your own green tea, and stay away from any bottled green teas that may have added sugar, and little polyphenol content. You may have heard of matcha, essentially powdered green tea leaves. Matcha may have an increased level of L-theanine as compared to regular green tea, because of the specific harvesting methods. Keep in mind, however, that Matcha does have more caffeine than green tea. Matcha also has a slightly grassy taste (makes sense with the vibrant green color), so it is often served with milk or added into smoothies.
Yep, you read that right! Dark chocolate contains a compound called flavonoids, a powerful plant-sourced antioxidant. Some studies show a reduction in stress cortisol levels when participants were given dark chocolate for a number of weeks (7).
Admittedly, this product needs more research before labeling it as a “superfood”. It’s important to choose a sensible type and portion of this treat. To optimize the benefits, make sure to choose dark chocolate that has at least 72 percent cacao, and keep your serving size to a sensible amount (generally 1-2 individual “squares” of a bar is a good place to start).
Lysine, an essential amino acid, may help balance our cortisol levels and reduce reported anxiety (8). Because lysine is an essential amino acid, our body cannot synthesize it on our own, so we need to consume it via food or supplements.
Just a 3-ounce portion of tuna contains nearly 190% of our recommended daily intake of the amino acid, lysine. For an easy lunch and excellent source of lysine, add a packet of tuna to a mixed vegetable salad, and toss with a basic olive oil and vinegar dressing.
Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Nonetheless, managing our stress to minimize the chronic effect on our physical (and mental) health is key. We enhance our stress-busting efforts when we also focus on the mind-body connection to stress. We can find stress reduction with physical activity (even just walking), yoga, meditation, and journaling. Recognizing your stress, and putting your health first, is the first step to creating a more happy, healthy, and well-rounded life.